The Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy, a breakthrough in respectable soft porn, has sold 100 million copies worldwide since EL James self-published her work in 2011. This week, the film adaptation, starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, will premiere at the Berlin Film Festival ahead of its release on Valentine's Day. The success of James has done much to overturn the stereotype of the self-published author, but has it done enough?
If we consider the damning words of literary giant Andrew Wylie, who derided self-publishing as the "aesthetic equivalent of telling everyone who sings in the shower they deserve to be in La Scala" at the 2014 International Festival of Authors, stigma is still rife.
But self-publishing is booming. Although self-published books account for a tiny proportion of the overall book market, their share of the British market soared by 79% in 2013, according to Nielson. Print sales are down and ebooks, on the whole, are up – largely driven by self-publishing. Wylie's vested interests aside, the perception of the self-published author is changing.
Publishing is no longer a 'dark art'
Dr Alison Baverstock, a former publisher and a professor of publishing at Kingston University, told IBTimes UK the rise of self-published authors suggest a greater understanding of the nature of the industry, previous considered a "dark art". The Naked Author, her guide to self-publishing, is published by Bloomsbury.
"The issue about stigma is less and less of an issue all the time," Baverstock says. "The author has become much more involved in the publishing process and their connection and communication with their readers has become much more important. EL James did just that – she took responsibility for communicating with her readership."
"It is part of a bigger trend that people are starting to understand what is involved in publishing," she says, referring to British author Sheila Rodgers, who self-published her best-selling psychological thrillers under the pen name Rachel Abbott.
"The experience of people I have met who are in self-publishing is that they are intelligent, busy and self-resourcing with an 'author entrepreneur' attitude. Literary agents used to turn their noses up at anyone who was self-published, as did publishers, but now I think it is seen as a badge of pro-activity."
Self-publishing is traditional publishing
Self-publishing and traditional publishing have long been regarded as two separate branches but as more self-published writers turn to editors and literary agents to help finesse their work and find an audience, some argue the two have merged. Not every agent is willing to work on a self-published book but some are adjusting their business models to fit the needs of their clients.
"Self-publishing and traditional publishing are no longer mutually exclusive," Baverstock says. "I genuinely think self-publishing is a part of traditional publishing. It is becoming a channel into traditional suppliers and it is a valid way of sourcing material.
"Publishers and agents are looking for what has been a success and self-publishing comes with evidence. You can look at ebook download figures and Twitter followers, and see just how many readers want to read the material. With new authors, you can demonstrate public interest and so it is less of a risk to publishers."
Literary greats have blurred the lines between self-publishing and traditional publishing for centuries. Jane Austen self-published after several failed attempts to break into the book market; Edgar Allan Poe paid a printer to publish 50 copies of a pamphlet of poetry Tamerlane and Other Poems; much of Virginia Woolf's work was self-published through the Hogarth Press; and Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol at his own expense in 1843 – and the first 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve.
What Austen, Poe and Dickens managed to do as a result of self-publishing is identify an audience that publishers had previously disregarded – something self-publishers writers continue to do today. The success of Fifty Shades Of Grey launched numerous copycat titles in the "mummy porn" genre, which was recognised as profitable after James's ebooks flew off the digital shelves.
"Self-publishing has also uncovered a terrific appetite for real-life stories about everyday disasters, such as losing a child or a relationship ending," Baverstock says. "Previously, there was a real view within publishers that these kinds of stories were only interesting if you were famous."
Staunch literary traditionalists might argue the increase in self-published authors has led to a tidal wave of rubbish, undermining the publishing world and the quality of literature. Even so, surely it is up to the reader to employ caveat emptor when buying self-published books?
"There is an awful lot of garbage that is being published, but a reader needs to be aware of what they are buying," Baverstock says.
"When you are booking holiday accommodation, you read the reviews. The same happens in publishing. The fact there is a lot of rubbish doesn't denigrate work that is finding a market, because people are liberated to try."
Julia Kingsford, head of marketing at Kingsford Campbell Literary & Marketing Agents and the former head of marketing at book store Foyles, says although self-publishing has opened closed doors to the publishing world, there are still limitations.
"Everyone in the publishing chain from agents, editors, typesetters, designers, marketeers and publicists add far more value to a book's quality and success than many people realise," she says.
"There's a huge difference between a first draft and a finished book and a lot of what publishers do is invest in making books as good and as readable as possible. If writers have the skills or can pay for or draw on them from others to do everything needed to self-publish a book to a standard a publisher can, then I think it's great."
"What is definitely true is that technology has completely changed routes to market and accessibility," Kingsford adds. "So putting out an ebook or short print run is affordable in a way that it never was before and a few writers are making it big. If you have a manuscript under the bed, as it were, the opportunity now for it to find readers is incredible, so why not put it out there?"